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The Times Inflates Trump’s Foolishness into Monstrousness

President Donald Trump points at a reporter during the daily coronavirus task force briefing at the White House, April 23, 2020. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

President Trump should not spit-ball on live television, especially on topics that are outside his ken.

How depressing is the erosion of the principle that when the president of the United States speaks, it means something, that it’s not just stream-of-consciousness that willy-nilly gets revised or reversed or treated like he never really said it. Just as depressing, though, is the media’s abandonment of straightforward fact reporting, in favor of unabashed alliance with Trump’s political opposition.

Why do blind partisans and demagogues have such sway these days? Because no one can trust the reporting of institutions we used to expect would give us an accurate rendition of the facts being debated.

The president’s meanderings about imaginary coronavirus treatments at Thursday’s press conference, and the press’s reporting on them, are a case in point.

While it is good for the president to project engaged leadership, that should never take the form of free-flowing dialogue with his advisers. Those conversations should happen behind closed doors. When the president speaks publicly, he should stick to what he is in a position to convey factually, not hypothetically. Especially when it comes to scientific and medical information, as to which he is quickly out of his depth.

At the same time, no matter how much the press abhors Trump, no matter how sincerely believed its conviction that he is a dangerous man who will induce people to do dangerous things, reporters worthy of the name do not have license to portray Trump as living down to their worst fears when he has not. If he says dumb things, they should report that he said dumb things. That’s bad enough (and since they’re clearly hoping to hurt him politically, nothing stings like the truth). The press destroys its own credibility, however, by reporting the president’s ill-advised remarks as if they were culpably, recklessly irresponsible remarks.

The president should not have spoken about theoretical virus treatments. But he obviously was not urging people to apply half-baked theories, or to seek any medical treatments without a doctor’s approval. He was opining on potential treatments he had been told that medical experts were testing, and speculated they should be testing, to determine their effectiveness.

Again, it is fair enough to fret that when people hear a president of the United States speak about potential remedies during a health crisis, they probably assume there is sound science behind them — and maybe even to worry that some people will be daft enough to try them. But when the president’s comments include statements showing he was encouraging scientists to conduct safe experiments, not recklessly encouraging Americans to experiment on themselves without a doctor’s supervision, it is dishonest not to report those statements.

In two paragraphs of its report on the president’s remarks, the New York Times leads readers to believe it is quoting the president at enough length to provide accurate context. Let’s take them one at a time.

Here’s the first:

“Supposing we hit the body with a tremendous — whether it’s ultraviolet or just very powerful light,” Mr. Trump said. “And I think you said that hasn’t been checked, but we’re going to test it?” he added, turning to [Bill Bryan, the acting undersecretary for science and technology at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)], who had returned to his seat. “And then I said, supposing you brought the light inside the body, either through the skin or some other way.”

This excerpt implies that Trump was proposing this as a remedy. But he was not. He was relating a conversation he had had with Undersecretary Bryan about possible testing that DHS might do. Omitted from the Times’s report (but included in the Guardian’s) is the sentence the president spoke right before the excerpt, which places it in context:

“So I asked Bill [Bryan] a question that probably some of you are thinking of, if you’re totally into that world, which I find to be very interesting.” He then proceeded with the question, “So, supposing we hit the body with a tremendous — whether it’s ultraviolet or just very powerful light.” Plainly, Trump was saying that he raised this as a question that, he supposed, would naturally occur to scientists, and that he found intriguing.

Not content with that, the Times also elides mention of the president’s last comment. After saying, “And then I said, supposing you brought the light inside the body, either through the skin or some other way,” which is where the Times cuts off the excerpt, Trump added, “And I think you said you’re going to test that too. It sounds interesting.” Again, this underscores that the president was reporting a prior conversation he’d had with an expert, regarding something he’d been told the experts were going to explore. He was not remotely suggesting that this was something the public should act on.

Here is the second excerpt:

“And then I see the disinfectant where it knocks it out in a minute — one minute — and is there a way we can do something like that by injection inside, or almost a cleaning?” he asked. “Because you see it gets in the lungs and it does a tremendous number on the lungs, so it would be interesting to check that.”

Here, again, the Times cuts out the last sentence. At the end of this excerpt, the president added: “So, that, you’re going to have to use medical doctors with, but it sounds interesting to me.” As is often the case, Trump thoughts are expressed in a choppy way. But it is plain enough that he was talking about a theoretical treatment that it would be “interesting” for the scientists to “check,” but that “medical doctors” would have to oversee any respiratory procedures involving injection.

I don’t see any good reason for the Times to edit the president’s remarks to obscure the facts that he was reporting a conversation he had with an expert about testing, and that he indicated medical doctors would have to approve any actual treatments by injection. The only rational reason is that the paper has a political agenda to portray Trump as urging lethally dangerous self-experimentation on the public.

It is foolish for the president to speak publicly this way. Why can’t the media just report that? Their credibility is in tatters because they can’t leave foolish alone — it’s Trump, so foolish has to be distorted into monstrous.

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